Breaking Bad: Shades of Fargo?
Our roundtable discusses "Buried," the second episode in the AMC show's final half-season.
Every week for the second half of the final season of Breaking Bad, our roundtable of TheAtlantic.com's J.J. Gould, Chris Heller, and Spencer Kornhaber will discuss the latest happenings on AMC's show.
Kornhaber: This episode’s big reveal: that the currency of Breaking Bad is, in fact, currency. For a long time, we’ve seen the show’s various players convince themselves that they act out of some combo of pride, familial duty, and self-preservation, so it’s been easy to forget the real animating force—the source of power, the goal of attaining power, the means of losing power—is money.
Not just money in the abstract, either. When talking crooks, you’re talking cash, a physical presence that “Buried” shows to be more alluring and more dangerous than drugs. For Walt, those dollar stacks are both incriminating evidence to be hidden and the God-given spoils of righteous conquest—and either way, as Skyler points out as Walt lays on the bathroom floor, they’re inextricable from his criminality. For Jesse, money’s the material manifestation of suffocating guilt that, he learns in this episode, can’t be lost merely by tossing it out a window. For Lydia, stammering in the desert about a $50 million shortfall, it’s the justification for a massacre.
So that scene with Huell and Kuby in the storage unit wasn’t just a needed comic break from an otherwise intensely emotional episode—it was a reminder of the polar stakes here. “Mexico, all’s I’m saying,” Huell groans, resting on Walt’s mountain of dollars, indulging in the fantasy of wealth as escape. “Guy hit 10 guys in jail within a two-minute window, all’s I’m saying,” Kuby replies, reminding of the deadly peril that Bad has shown accompanies attainment. Live Free or Die: It’s the state motto that gave this season’s opener its name, and, viewers suspect, the principle that will characterize Walter White’s endgame.
So that’s more or less the economist's take on this episode. The TV-viewer take: Damn, that was stressful. Great, but stressful. And basically exactly what I wanted to see after last week: a generous look at how the impact of Hank’s revelation ripples across Walter White’s web. We were treated to scene after scene of bravura acting as characters stared one another down, trying to come up with some non-catastrophic solution to the question what now?
I stick by my assertion last week that Walter is no longer what’s interesting about Breaking Bad. Walt, we already knew, will go to life-threatening lengths to cover his tracks—all we can hope to learn is how. The only compelling Heisenberg-related question mark was whether he’d try and send Hank on that trip to Belize; it was little surprise that by his code, family is "off limits.” (Relatedly, I’d be freaking out over the foreshadow-y possibilities of his offhanded “I’ll send you to Belize” to Saul if Vince Gilligan hadn’t made so much noise about there being a Bob Odenkirk spinoff in the works.)
Skyler, though, was the real star tonight, and not just because Anna Gunn likely sewed up another Emmy nomination by how well she said very little. What was she going to do? Who was she going to side with? I honestly wasn’t sure when the episode began, and the suspense kept each of her scenes fascinating. The Schraders riveted as well: Hank for how burningly angry yet clearly off his game he was—his clipped, teeth-gritted delivery with Skyler; his feeble return to crass joking with Gomez—and Marie for the way she slipped from empathy to frightened hurt at her sister’s lies.
Would Hank really be so reckless as to confront Walt before amassing satisfactory evidence, and then scare off Skyler by trying to record testimony at a diner table? Would Skyler really make a mortal bet on Walt being able to outmaneuver Hank—and would she want Walt to outmaneuver Hank? We could do a whole 'nother roundtable spelling out the cases for and against how the show has decided to answer these questions (for what it’s worth, Skyler’s actions seem more plausible to me than Hank’s). But we’re at a point where you either trust the show’s writers on what their characters do, or you don’t. Chris, do you?
Heller: I do, although this episode tested my faith. The first time I watched "Buried," I didn't like the breakneck pace of its revelations. Why would Hank go right to Skyler? Why would he tell Marie about Walt, and what did Marie hope to accomplish by confronting her sister about her lies? Perhaps most important: How will Vince Gilligan and his merry band of tragic pranksters find a way to introduce chaos in the remaining chapters of this story, now that (almost) all of Walt's sins are out in the open? "Buried" didn't feel like a supreme disappointment, but I felt it lacked the grace in execution that's been a hallmark of Breaking Bad.
Luckily for me, I watched the episode again—and the encore softened my complaints significantly. "Buried" is more expository than exploratory, so it functions as an hour of moving parts and closed loopholes that rely on what we already know about these characters. Think of it as an artful set piece. It's no accident that the last scene we see—where Hank steps into Jesse's interrogation room, presumably to turn him against Walt—is such an exciting and frustrating cliffhanger. We're supposed to want more. We're supposed to be desperate to find out what's next. This is what careful serialized drama looks like when it's executed completely according to plan.
So, where do we stand now? Walt's money is buried in the desert, leaving Skyler without anything to tell Hank even if she decides to flip. (Which she won't.) Hank's last, best hope to catch his brother-in-law is Jesse, the guy he once put in the hospital. Todd and his uncle's gang of neo-Nazis are the new meth game in New Mexico. Lydia continues to ignore the carnage she's unleashed. Marie hates her sister. Baby Holly is still an adorable baby. All of which is to say: "Buried" effectively drew the battle lines for the rest of the series. It's Walt and Skyler vs. Hank and Marie vs. Lydia and Todd.
Even with all those characters running around, I was surprised by Bryan Cranston's tepid performance. Am I totally wrong about this? He was uncharacteristically dull. I know it's been a long time since Breaking Bad was a one-man show, but Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, and Betsy Brandt ran laps around Cranston this week—to the point that I actually think Walt was the weakest part of "Buried." Maybe you're onto something, Spencer. We still have no idea how his story will end, but Walt seems an awful lot less interesting than he used to be.
One last thing: I noticed a few shades of Fargo in Walt's desperate bid to bury his fortune. It's only a hunch, but I'll be surprised if we see those barrels of cash again. What do you guys think will happen to that money?
Gould: That's a good question. I don't know!
I think the prior issue for me is more what will happen with the lotto ticket Walt tacked to the fridge with the money's desert coordinates on it. Hank's going to find that, right? And he's going to ask himself, wait, what's Walt, with all his meth money, doing buying a lotto ticket? Right?
I can't, in any case, agree that Cranston was weak in this episode. Is he even capable of that? (Serious question.) Chris, check out the complete Walter White autobiography Cranston does with his facial muscles while Walt walks to his car in that first scene. Or Walt's post-unconscious plea to Skyler while lying on their bathroom floor that she'll promise, whatever happens, to keep the money and not render everything he's done meaningless.
I'm still not sure I can agree, either, that Gilligan is really taking Walt out of the center of the story—or as Spencer puts it, that "Walter is no longer what's interesting about Breaking Bad." But something's going on with Walt's role in the story here. What is it?
So much of the show's first four-and-a-half seasons has been a genius double helix of plot twist and character study, with Walt and Jesse being the main agents of the former and the main subjects of the latter. Walt has known everything from the start. While not everyone in the story around him is equally late to learning his secret, no one is better prepared for that secret to be out in the open than he is. And when it is? Walt is remarkably focused and practical. There's no existential crisis for him. Unlike Hank or Marie, he already knew what he'd become. And, unlike Skyler, he's been living with the immanent end of his life as he knows it—in his case, literally his death—the whole time. So right now, there's a logic to Walt being all about the externality of plot, and not so much about the internality of character, while everyone around him reacts. Jesse, meanwhile, is just checked out in a daze of disorienting guilt. My guess? This is all a moment in the last act rather than the last act itself.
Oh, and the Lydia-Todd axis: Fascinating. And terrifying. My one thought there is that in a show that's been so much about personal responsibility, and that's done so much to avoid (or alternately undermine) any fascicle political optics on the drug war, Lydia and Todd represent an ugly fundamental reality of a market as black as crystal meth's: Whatever has been hollow in Walt's justifications for what he and Jesse have done, when they stop, someone at least as bad, if not worse, is going to step in.